Railway Union Plans 2nd, Bigger Strike

An independent railway workers union said Tuesday that it would go on strike later this month if its members' salaries were not doubled, raising the possibility that millions of commuter train passengers around the country will face delays and cancellations.

The Federal Professional Union of Locomotive Brigades is demanding that state-owned Russian Railways increase members' wages from 30,000 rubles ($1,300) to 60,000 rubles per month, following a disruptive work stoppage by 120 train drivers in Moscow on April 28.

Russian Railways has refused to negotiate with the union, calling the first strike illegal because the company was not forewarned, and it has filed complaints with prosecutors over that protest and the planned strike.

Up to 2 million passengers might be affected by the protest, Dmitry Rasimovich-Rusak, deputy head of the union, said by telephone Tuesday.

The union will decide on a date for the strike at a meeting Monday, he said, adding that it could involve workers in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Tula, Yekaterinburg, Orenburg and Chita.

The workers' demands appeared to face a setback Tuesday, when the Cabinet postponed a decision on setting aside additional budget funds for Russian Railways' development program.

Deputy Economic Development and Trade Minister Andrei Klepach told reporters after the Cabinet meeting that the government would take up the company's investment program for 2008 to 2010 in late June or July, although he also cast doubt on its chances of being approved.

"It's unrealistic to hope to find a full trillion rubles in the budget," he said, adding that Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin had taken a hard line on the proposal and wanted the funds to come from other sources.

Russian Railways, which employs 1.3 million people and had a 2007 net profit of 78.7 billion rubles by Russian accounting standards, is seeking 1 trillion rubles ($42 billion) from the budget for investment in infrastructure and new equipment. The company has said it will not use the money to raise salaries.

"The strikers' actions won't get them anything," a company spokesman said, refusing to give his name in line with company policy. "We'll do everything possible to prevent a second strike," he added, declining to elaborate.

The Transportation Ministry said Tuesday that it was not planning to get involved in the conflict. "We understand the strikers' demands but are against strikes as a method to get a wage increase," ministry spokesman Timur Khikmatov said.

A working group in the State Duma's Labor and Social Policy Committee is scheduled to discuss the dispute on May 16, said Rasimovich-Rusak, the union's deputy head.

Although Russian Railways officials have refused to negotiate, union officials said representatives from Moscow Region Railways, a subsidiary of the national company, came to the table Tuesday.

"Some representatives of the Moscow Region Railways came to us this morning to talk in detail about our demands," Nikolai Pavlov, the union's leader in the Moscow region city of Pushkino, said by telephone. "We know Russian Railways' managers aren't fools — they understand that our strike may lead to serious economic problems."

Around 80 employees at the Pushkino depot who took part in the previous strike were deprived of all their bonuses in April. Pavlov said some of the Pushkino strikers had demanded salaries of 100,000 rubles on Tuesday.

Russian Railways' press service said it knew nothing about the talks.